Excerpt: Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

We’re really excited to bring you an excerpt from Anthony Ryan’s Queen of Fire! It’s chapter 2. You can find chapter 1 on Anthony’s website.

Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

Alucius

The Kuritai’s name was Twenty-Seven, though Alucius had yet to hear him say it. In fact he had yet to hear the slave-elite say anything. He reacted to instruction with instant obedience and was the perfect servant, fetching, carrying, and cleaning with no sign of fatigue or even the faintest expression of complaint.

“My gift to you,” Lord Darnel had said that day they had dragged Alucius from the depths of the Blackhold, expecting death and gasping in astonishment when they removed his shackles and he found his own father’s hands helping him to his feet. “A servant of peerless perfectitude,” Darnel went on, gesturing at the Kuritai. “You know, I think I’m growing fond of your wordsmithing ways, little poet.”

“Yes, I’m very well this fine morning,” Alucius told Twenty-Seven as he laid out the breakfast. “How nice of you to ask.”

They were on the veranda overlooking the harbour, the sun rising over the horizon to paint the ships a golden hue he knew would have sent Alornis scurrying to fetch her canvas and brushes. He had chosen the house for the view, a merchant’s domicile no doubt, its owner presumably dead or enslaved along with his family. Varinshold was full of empty houses now, more to choose from should he grow tired of this one, but he found himself too fond of the view, especially as it covered the entirety of the harbour.

Fewer and fewer ships, he thought, counting the vessels with accustomed precision. Ten slavers, five traders, four warships. The slavers sat highest in the water, their copious holds empty, as they had been for weeks, ever since the great column of smoke had risen to blot the sun from the sky for days on end. Alucius had been trying to write something about it, but found the words failed to flow every time he put pen to paper. How does one write a eulogy for a forest?

Twenty-Seven placed the last plate on the table and stood back as Alucius reached for his cutlery, tasting the mushrooms first, finding them cooked to perfection with a little garlic and butter. “Excellent as always, my deadly friend.”

Twenty-Seven stared out of the window and said nothing.

“Ah yes, it’s visiting day,” Alucius went on around a mouthful of bacon. “Thank you for reminding me. Pack the salve and the new books, if you would.”

Twenty-Seven instantly turned away and went about his instructions, moving to the bookcase first. The house’s owner had maintained a reasonable library, largely, Alucius assumed, for appearances sake as few of the volumes showed much sign of having ever been read. They were mostly popular romances and a few of the more well-known histories, none suited to his purposes, which obliged him to spend hours ransacking the larger houses for more interesting material. There was much to choose from, the Volarians were boundlessly enthusiastic looters but had little interest in books, save as kindling. Yesterday had been particularly fruitful, netting a complete set of Marial’s Astronomical Observations and an inscribed volume he hoped would arouse the interest of one of his charges in particular.

Ten slavers, five traders, four warships, he counted again, turning to the harbour. Two less than yesterday . . . He paused as another vessel came into view, a warship rounding the headland to the south. It seemed to be struggling to make headway through the water, only one sail raised and that, he saw as it came closer, was a ragged thing of soot-blackened canvas. The ship trailed sagging rope through the placid morning swell as it neared the harbour mouth, blocks and shattered beams hanging from her rigging, sparse crew moving about the deck with the stoop of exhausted men. As she weighed anchor Alucius’s eyes picked out numerous scorch marks blackening her hull and many dark brown stains on her untidy deck.

Five warships, he corrected himself. One with an interesting tale to tell, it seems.

* * *

They stopped off at the pigeon coop on the way, finding his sole remaining bird in typically hungry mood. “Don’t bolt it,” he cautioned Blue Feather with a wagging finger but she ignored him, head bobbing as she pecked at the seeds. The coop was situated atop the house of the Blocker’s Guild, the roof spared the fires that had gutted the building thanks to its iron-beamed construction. The surrounding houses hadn’t been so fortunate and the once-busy building where he had come to have his poems printed now rose from streets of rubble and ash. Seen from this vantage point the city resembled a grimy patchwork, islands of intact buildings in a sea of grey-black ruins.

“Sorry if you’re finding it lonely these days,” he told Blue Feather, stroking her fluffy breast. There had been ten of them to begin with, a year ago. Young birds each with a tiny wire clasp about their right leg, strong enough to hold a message.

This had been the first place he had hurried to on release from the Blackhold, finding only three birds still alive. He fed them and disposed of the corpses as Twenty-Seven looked on impassively. It had been a risk leading the slave here to witness his greatest secret, but there was little choice. In truth, he had expected the Kuritai to either cut him down on the spot or shackle him once more for immediate return to captivity. Instead he just stood and watched as Alucius scribbled the coded message on a tiny scrap of parchment before rolling it up and sliding it into the small metal cylinder that would fit onto the bird’s leg clasp.

Varinshold fallen, he had written though he knew it was probably old news to the recipients. Darnel rules. 500 knights & one V division. Twenty-Seven didn’t even turn to watch the bird fly away when Alucius cast it from the rooftop and the expected deathblow had never fallen, not then and not when he released the next bird the night the Volarian fleet set sail for the Meldenean Isles. Twenty-Seven, it appeared, was neither his gaoler nor Darnel